Montgomery Ward M-4462 – Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee – 1930

Powder River Jack H. Lee, pictured in his book The Stampede.

Over the past decade-and-a-half-or-so, the Senate of the United States has made a tradition of decreeing the fourth Saturday of every July to be the National Day of the American Cowboy.  Across the western states, the holiday is celebrated with festivals and other such customary jubilations; on Old Time Blues, we shall celebrate the occasion in the only way we know how—with appreciation of an old record.

Born Jackson Martin on the first of October, 1874, Jack H. Lee was counted among the eldest of the more authentic tradition of cowboy singers to cut records in the days before Hollywood Autrys and Rogerses took center stage (though the extent of that authenticity has been called into question).  Purportedly after joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show around 1893, Jack met his future wife Kitty Miller, a native Illinoisan six years his senior, and the two began a long career singing genuine cowboy songs on vaudeville and in rodeos.  Claiming to hail from Montana, they dubbed themselves Powder River Jack and Pretty Kitty Lee and were performing together at least as early as 1898.  Ultimately, the duo became one of the most popular early cowboy acts, though their recorded legacy leaves little evidence of that success.  The Lees were recorded for the first time in November of 1930, with a session for the RCA Victor Company in Hollywood.  The date produced four titles, all of which were released to limited success as the nation plunged into the Great Depression.  They returned to the studio six years later, waxing two sides for Decca in Chicago, which have never been released.  An additional three recordings were made of Jack performing at the National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in May of 1938.  Powder River Jack also published several books of cowboy lore and song folios during the 1930s which demonstrated his penchant for misappropriating authorship of traditional cowboy poetry (even going so far as to claim “Red River Valley” as his own).  Jack Lee died in a car accident on February 24, 1946, in Chandler, Arizona; he was survived for nine years by Kitty, and both are interred side-by-side in the City Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.  Because of Jack’s tendency to plagiarize, the duo’s merit as cowboy performers has been challenged.  While indeed neither Jack nor Kitty were likely ever working cowhands and much of their backstory was probably fabricated, they did perform and preserve genuine western folk music—even if they wrongfully attributed its origins—and, with that caveat, are no less deserving of recognition than their contemporary early cowboy recording artists.

Montgomery Ward M-4462 was recorded on November 3, 1930, in Hollywood, California.  It was originally released on Victor 23527, of which a total of 2,158 copies were reported sold.  Jack and Kitty both strum their guitars, while the former blows the harmonica on a rack between stanzas.  Jack sings solo vocals on both sides.

“Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail [sic]”, illustrated by Powder River Jack.

Certainly one of the most enticing cowboy songs put to shellac in the 1920s and 1930s and today a standard of the traditional cowboy repertoire, “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail”, was truthfully written by Gail Gardner in 1917, though Lee claimed the credit on the record and otherwise (much to the former’s chagrin).  Legend has it that Gardner and his chums in Prescott, Arizona, once tarred and feathered Powder River Jack for stealing his song.

Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

“Powder River, Let ‘er Buck”, ostensibly actually written by Jack himself, lent its name to one of his publications in the same year he cut the record.

Powder River, Let ‘er Buck, recorded November 3, 1930 by Powder River Jack–Kitty Lee.

Victor 21361 – Ernest Rogers – 1928/1927

Ernest Rogers in the 1940s, pictured on the dust jacket of his The Old Hokum Bucket, 1949.

We have heard once before from that Atlanta newspaper man and down-home song spinner—and one of my personal heroes—Ernest Rogers, when he graced us with his memorable rendition of the old vaudeville song “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper”.  Now, he’s with us once again, this time with perhaps even better material (though that old dope head Willie is hard to beat).  As I have already biographed Mr. Rogers somewhat thoroughly in the aforementioned article, I urge you to look there for the basic facts.

During his own life, Ernest Rogers was best known as a newsman, rather akin to the South’s answer to Walter Winchell as host and lead reporter of the Atlanta Journal‘s daily “Radio Headlines” program on Atlanta’s pioneering radio station WSB (“Welcome South, brother”).  Today however, it is his musical proclivities—namely the five records he made for Victor in 1927 and ’28—that have won him his most enduring fame, yet his activities in the field were far from limited to making records.  Rogers copyrighted his first song while still a student at Emory University in 1919.  When radio was in its infancy, Rogers joined the staff of Atlanta’s WSB, his crooning and guitar-picking making a hit with listeners at a time when, in Rogers’ own words, “anybody who could sing, whistle, recite, play any kind of instrument, or merely breathe heavily was pushed in front of the WSB microphone.”  In 1922, at the same time he was busy making his name on the radio, his composition “Tune in With My Heart”—celebrating the newly emerging medium—was recorded by popular baritone Ernest Hare.  Rogers made his own recording debut three years later, waxing a memorable—and probably the first—rendition of the vaudeville folk song “Willie the Weeper” coupled with his own composition “My Red-Haired Lady”.  Later in 1925, Francis Craig’s Atlanta-based territory band recorded Rogers’ waltz song “Forgiveness”, featuring the singing of a young James Melton in his first recording, helping to bring the tenor singer to prominence.  The year of 1927 began Rogers’ association with Victor Records, which proved to be both his most fruitful record engagement and his last.  In his first Victor session on the seventeenth of that February, he began with a duet with WSB announcer and director Lambdin Kay titled “Mr. Rogers and Mr. Kay”—probably in the style of the popular comic song “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean”—which was never released.  He followed with a remake of “Willie the Weeper”, retitled “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” but nearly identical to his earlier recording.  The following May, he traveled to Camden, New Jersey, to make six more sides, starting out with a similar re-do of “My Red-Haired Lady”.  “The Flight of Lucky Lindbergh” celebrated the intrepid aviator’s historic journey only two days after he had landed safely in Paris.  On “Let Me Be Your Man in the Moon”, Rogers yodeled nearly three whole months before Jimmie Rodgers made his first record.  Finally, on February twenty-third of the following year, he completed his recorded legacy in a session that mirrored his first Victor session, making two sides of which only one was issued.  Out of a total of twelve recorded sides to his name (including the two unissued), nine were original compositions.  Though his recording career had thus ended, Ernest Rogers’ musical interests were far from their conclusion.  He continued to publish songs in the decades that followed.  Popular hillbilly artist Lew Childre recorded “My Red-Haired Lady” several times during his career [though having not heard the song, I cannot verify that it is indeed the same one].  In his later years, Rogers’ career as a newspaperman had taken precedence over his music-making, but he nevertheless never ceased from entertaining with his homespun ditties when the opportunity presented.

Victor 21361 was recorded in two separate sessions; the first side was recorded on February 23, 1928 in Atlanta, Georgia, the second was recorded on May 23, 1927, in Camden, New Jersey.  It was released in July of the same year, and remained in Victor’s catalog until 1931.

Providing stiff competition to his “Willie, the Chimney Sweeper” for the title of Ernest Rogers’ best remembered song—surely thanks in no small part to its reissue on Tompkins Square’s Turn Me Loose—is his “The Mythological Blues”.  Rogers first composed the humorous song during his time at Emory University in 1919—the same year in which he founded the Emory Wheel—but it went unrecorded until his final session nearly ten years afterward.  With its lyrics contrasting ancient Greek and Roman mythology with the modern times of the Jazz Age (“of all the sights saw Jupiter spot ’em, seein’ sweet Venus, doin’ Black Bottom; oh take me back ten-thousand years when they played the Mythological Blues”) it makes for a marvelous swan song.

The Mythological Blues, recorded February 23, 1928 by Ernest Rogers.

On the flip, Rogers sings “I’ve Got the Misery”, but it sure sounds to me like there’s every known indication that he’s got the blues.  This side shines with some of Rogers’ poetry at its most eloquent: “Well, the fire in the stable destroyed the town; but it’s the fire in your eyes that truly burns me down.”

I’ve Got the Misery, recorded May 23, 1927 by Ernest Rogers.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 – Roy Shaffer – 1939

Though once a widely known and popular personality on radio stations around St. Louis, with a brief recording career that produced only eight discs, cowboy singer Roy Shaffer since drifted into near total obscurity; in fact, the article hereafter appears to be the only substantial biography of him ever published.

Roy Shaffer and Gang appearing on KWK, St. Louis.  Roy pictured third from left.  Circa 1940s.

Roy was born Jesse Lee Shaffer on December 6, 1906, one of several children of Luther and Anna Shaffer of Mathiston, Mississippi.  After growing up on the farm, he left home to pursue the life of a singing cowboy.  According to one account, he got his start in the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and made his debut appearance on the radio in 1926.  By the middle of the 1930s, he was living in New Orleans and appearing on WWL, billed as the “Lone Star Cowboy” (making him one of quite a few, including native Texan Leon Chappelear, to adopt that sobriquet), an engagement which purportedly brought him as many as 7,462 fan letters in one day.  He also reportedly claimed, at various times, the pseudonyms of the “Rambling Yodeler” ,”Tennessee Kid”, “Mississippi Tadpole”, “Louisiana Bullfrog”, and “Reckless Red”.  During that stint, M.M. Cole of Chicago published a book of his songs, and he made his first phonograph records, cutting four sides for Decca in their field trip to New Orleans in 1936.  Also around that time, he married Cajun girl Edith Falcon, who would later join in in the act, billed as “Eddie Shaffer”.  He returned to the studio once more in 1939 to record a further twelve songs, this time for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, in Chicago.  These included a rendition of the classic cowboy song “Bury Me Out on the Prairie”, the popular “Great Speckled Bird”, and covers Chris Bouchillon’s “Talking Blues” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Match Box Blues”.  Those two sessions accounted for the entirety of Shaffer’s known commercial recording work, but his greatest success was evidently found on the radio; in 1939, Rural Radio magazine reported that Shaffer had appeared on fifty-nine radio stations, “both the smallest and the largest,” though he was reported as “off-the-air” and living in Istrouma, Louisiana, in 1938.  By 1940, he was in St. Louis, where he remained for the majority of his career, and employed by the Carson-Union-May-Stern furniture store to appear on their radio programs on several different local stations.  He made appearances on WEW from 1939 into ’41 with his “Hillbillies”, after which he began appearing on KWK with his “Gang”, a gig he still held in the middle-to-late part of the decade; he was also on KSD in 1942 with his “Missouri Ramblers”.  By the early 1950s, he was on KWRE in Warrenton, Missouri.  He also made off-air appearances, attending and participating in rodeos and giving live programs for his fans, often at events put on by Carson’s Furniture Store.  In the 1950s, he owned and operated a “hillbilly park” in Mexico, Missouri.  He was still active on the radio in St. Louis as late as 1956.  Roy Shaffer died in March of 1974 in Greenville, Mississippi, at the age of sixty-eight.  Several of Shaffer’s recordings were later reissued on BMG’s East Virginia Blues: The Secret History of Rock and Roll and JSP Records’ Classic Field Recordings: Landmark Country Sessions from a Lost Era, but those have done little to rise the artist up and out from the depths of obscurity.

Montgomery Ward M-8493 was recorded on June 26, 1939, at RCA Victor’s Studio C in Chicago, Illinois by Roy Shaffer, singing with guitar.  It was also released on Bluebird B-8234.

In his casual delivery of Chris Bouchillon’s seminal “Talking Blues”, Shaffer oozes southern charm like hot butter through sourdough toast.  “If you want to go to heaven, let me tell you how to do it; just grease yourself in a little mutton suet…”

Talking Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Flip the record over and he gets low-down on his arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s classic Texas folk blues standard “The Match Box Blues”—one of my personal favorites.

The Match Box Blues, recorded June 26, 1939 by Roy Shaffer.

Victor V-40008 – “Peg” Moreland – 1928

Known to radio listeners across the Southwest from the 1920s to the 1940s as the “King of the Ditty Singers”, Dallas’ own “Peg” Moreland was surely among the most prolific pre-war folksingers from the State of Texas, yet most unfortunately he has since fallen behind that so-common veil of obscurity.

"Peg" Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” Moreland, from 1930 Victor supplemental.

“Peg” was born Arnot Jackson Moreland (though he switched his first and middle names later in life) on October 29, 1892, on a farm in Rienzi, Texas, a no-longer-extant community in Hill County, one of at least eight children of Samuel Jackson and Mollie (née Arnot) Moreland.  From a young age, Moreland memorized folk songs he picked up from his southwestern environment.  Not long after 1900, the family moved west to Canyon, Texas, where Pa Moreland operated a grocery store until his untimely death in 1908.  There, the young Moreland played piano, clarinet and saxophone in the Canyon Municipal Band.  Jackson served in the National Guard for three years prior to the First World War, attaining the rank of corporal, and was later justice of the peace in Randall County for three years beginning in 1921.  At some point between 1917 and 1925, Moreland lost his right leg in a railroad accident, presumably during his work as a brakeman on the Santa Fe, the replacement for which gained him the nickname “Peg”.  He moved to Dallas with his family in 1924.  With guitar in hand and a head full of folk ditties, Moreland began singing on Dallas’ venerable radio station WFAA in 1925.  Moreland sang in a light and pleasant tenor croon—akin to other popular radio folksingers like Bradley Kincaid—and played guitar in a snappy, syncopated, ragtime-esque flatpicked style.  His repertoire—said to consist of over two-thousand “ditties”—was not too dissimilar from that of Georgia’s Riley Puckett, with material ranging from cowboy ballads, to old minstrel and parlor songs.

For a short time, Moreland went west to work as a railroad mail clerk on the Arizona run before returning to WFAA in 1927.  In July of 1928, Moreland traveled to Chicago, Illinois, to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company; in his first session, he cut five sides, followed by three more two days later.  While he was there, he spent a brief time performing on the WLS National Barn Dance as “Tex” Moreland before returning home to Texas.  The next year, Victor came to him, conducting a field trip to Dallas, during which he recorded another three sides.  He later attended Victor field trips to Memphis and Atlanta, in 1929 and ’30, respectively, resulting in a further eight sides.  All of the sides he recorded, nineteen in total, were released, some on split releases shared with the likes of Harry “Mac” McClintock and Blind Jack Mathis.  After 1930, Peg Moreland made no further commercial recordings, but his radio career was far from over, and he also performed frequently in local vaudeville and functions.  He remained a fixture on WFAA, its associate station KGKO, and other stations around Texas and Oklahoma, at least as late as the Second World War.  Moreland never married and lived with his mother and brothers until her death in 1943.  Late in his life, Moreland lived in hotels around the city of Dallas, including the New Oxford and Lawrence.  “Peg” Moreland died on January 11, 1973 in Dallas, Texas, of a coronary.  His death certificate still listed his occupation as “entertainer” and WFAA as his employer.

Victor V-40008 was recorded on July 5 and 3, 1928, respectively, at 952 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois—Moreland’s first session.  “Peg” Moreland sings and accompanies himself on the guitar.

Peg first sings one of my favorite home-spun ditties: “Stay in the Wagon Yard”.  The song tells the humorous tale of a farmer who comes to town to bring his crop to market.  He leaves the wagon yard to “see the ‘lectric lights and watch the cars come in,” only to be taken on a drunken spree by some city dudes.  He warns his fellow farmers to “buy a half-pint and stay in the wagon yard.”  Probably best known by Grandpa Jones’s rendition, Moreland’s recording was the first of several contemporaneous versions, including ones by Georgia fiddlers Lowe Stokes and Earl Johnson, as well as Alabama folkster Lew Childre.  The Fresno State Traditional Ballad Index lists Arthur Tanner—who sang on the Stokes recording—as the probable writer, though this seems unlikely, seeing as Moreland, from Texas, made his recording of the song more than a year prior.  It seems more likely that Stokes and the gang, who followed Moreland’s verse almost to the letter with the exception of omitting the last stanza, heard it from Moreland’s record, though where Moreland learned the song I couldn’t say; he was not a songwriter himself and denied ever producing any original songs, instead drawing fully on traditional material.  In addition to Moreland’s Texan heritage, the line “I’m a deacon in a hard-shell church down near Possum Trot” could suggest a Texas origin, assuming it refers to the predominately black farming community near the Louisiana border, though there are places by that name in several other states.  It is worth noting that Earl Johnson’s 1930 recording adds several verses not heard in Moreland’s or Stokes’s records.  Quite a few recordings have been made since, and the song’s popularity with old-time string bands endures to this day.

Stay in the Wagon Yard, recorded July 5, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Moreland’s rendition of the popular folk song “The Old Step Stone”—commonly known by the title “Goodbye to My Stepstone” or some variation on that—was his first recorded side.  The song in its original form is believed to date back to 1880, when it was published as “Old Doorstep” by one J.O. Webster.

The Old Step Stone, recorded July 3, 1928 by “Peg” Moreland.

Silvertone 5013 – Chubby Parker – 1927

With his “little old-time banjo” by his side, Chicago-based Chubby Parker was of the earliest folksingers to find fame on the radio, and could be viewed as the WLS National Barn Dance’s counterpart to the WSM Grand Ole Opry’s Uncle Dave Macon.

Chubby Parker, as pictured in 100 WLS Barn Dance Favorites. A crop of the only well-publicized photograph of Parker.

“Chubby” was born Frederick R. Parker on October 23, 1876, in Lafayette, Indiana, the only (living) son of the deputy treasurer of Tippecanoe County.  His father, North, had roots in Kentucky, and his mother, Emma, in Virginia.  He attended Purdue University and earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1898.  Sometime after the turn of the century, he left Indiana for city life in Chicago, and there he married Miss Frances S. Kischel in 1907 and had a daughter name Claudia four years later.  At the time of the first World War, Parker claimed his occupation as patent attorney and “inventor”.  In 1925, he became one of the earliest stars on the burgeoning scene of country and folk music when he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on the Sear-Roebuck owned radio station WLS.  With simple banjo accompaniment, sometimes with the addition of whistling or harmonica, Parker’s repertoire consisted almost entirely of traditional folk and old-time songs ranging from well known numbers like “Oh, Susanna” and “The Year of Jubilo” (a.k.a. “Kingdom Coming”) to remarkably obscure ones such as his version of the old minstrel song “Pompey Smash and Davy Crockett”; he displayed a particular predilection toward humorous nonsense songs like “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo”.  While admittedly unbased conjecture, it stands to reason that Parker may have been employed by the station as for his engineering abilities prior to his becoming an on-air personality, as would have been somewhat common practice in those early days of radio broadcasting.  Though not possessing the best voice and far from the most exemplary banjo player, Parker was met with widespread adulation and reportedly garnered 2,852 pieces of fan mail in one week in February of 1927.  He began publishing sheet music of his some of his popular numbers, such as “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” and “I’m a Stern Old Bachelor”.  Sears also marketed Supertone “Ragtime King” five-string banjos emblazoned with Parker’s autograph, and some of his Silvertone records featured the same.  Beginning in the very same month that all those letters came in, Chubby Parker recorded for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records and a plethora of other labels, ultimately producing a total of thirty-six sides for the company in a span of three years, of which twenty-eight were released, mostly on the Sears-Roebuck labels Silvertone and Supertone.  He also recorded as banjoist with Tommy Dandurand’s Barn Dance Fiddle Band (try saying that three times fast).  That stint was interrupted by one errant session for Columbia that produced only one record, which became his most famous after the inclusion of one side—”King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O”—in Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music.  In 1931, he concluded his recording career with three consecutive sessions for the American Record Corporation, producing a further nineteen sides—mostly re-recordings of songs he had recorded once or twice before—all of which were released, again primarily marketed by Sears-Roebuck on their Conqueror label, though one also appeared on the other ARC dimestore labels.  Thereafter, Parker apparently departed the Barn Dance, purportedly jealous of fellow folksinger Bradley Kincaid’s popularity.  He made at least one brief return to the program in 1936, and was still promoted in station publications at the same time.  By the end of the 1930s, Parker, then in his early sixties, had apparently retired from all work.  Chubby Parker died in Chicago on August 28, 1940.

Silvertone 5013 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2, 1927, at the studios of the Starr Piano Co—Parker’s second recording session.  He cut earlier versions of both sides at his first, but they were rejected.  Chubby Parker sings, whistles, and banjos.  It was also released on Silvertone 25013 and Supertone 9191, and with side “A” appearing on Gennett 6097 and Champion 15278 and “B” on Gennett 6120 and Champion 15298.

Parker’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna” is one of the most quaint, most rustic things I have ever heard in my entire life—and believe me when I tell you, I have heard a great many quaint and rustic things!  Parker’s simple banjo and enormously understated performance is a far cry from the rollicking style in which Carson Robison recorded the Stephen Foster standard five years later.  Do be advised however, Foster’s lyrics gravitate considerably in the direction opposite what may be considered politically correct.  Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography notes that this issue used the spelling “Oh, Suzanna”; though some copies do display that variation, this one, as you can plainly see, does not.

Oh, Susanna, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.

On the reverse, Chubby sings and whistles his version of the old chestnut “Little Brown Jug”; he tended to work through these numbers quite fast, and packed considerable number of verses into the three-minute limit.  Parker, rather atypically, played his banjo in a manner quite reminiscent of the “boom-chang” style of plucking alternating bass strings and strumming in-between that was nigh ubiquitous among old-time guitarists of the 1920s and ’30s, as exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and many others, rather than common styles of banjo picking.

Little Brown Jug, recorded April 2, 1927 by Chubby Parker.